Design Museums and Firearms: It’s Time We Had “The Talk”

Barbara Eldredge from D-Crit on Vimeo.

Come to Eventually Everything: The 2012 D-Crit Conference on Wednesday, May 2nd and watch me talk about guns, design museums, and morality.

Experiential Exhibition: The Simulated Bomb Shelter

According to metro,the pro-Israel graffiti group Artists 4 Israel was recently turned away from Columbia University where it intended to bring a controversial Israeli Bomb Shelter Museum. The “museum,” housed in a replica bunker similar to those found in Southern Israel, simulates the experience of a rocket attack through the use of sound and video. The group set up the museum last year in Washington Square Park but the loud noise quickly drew police attention and it was closed down after just half an hour.

The Artists 4 Israel website has recently been hacked but Israeli National News quotes a description of the project:

“The bomb shelter is a Museum of Living History and Art Installation. A functional bomb shelter built in the exact specifications of those found in Sderot, Israel, on the border of Gaza, this refuge mimics the feel, look, small and sounds of the original. From wailing ‘Red Alert’ sirens to interactive computer terminals, a multi-media presentation provides facts and education about the conflict in the Middle East while artistic flourishes create emotive and important and visceral reactions in the visitor.”

The description of this proposed exhibition made me feel a little squeamish. Not only because of the sometimes anti-Palestinian vibe of the artists but because the projects reminded me of something Paul Virilio wrote about in his startling book War and Cinema:

“After 1945, this cinematic artifice of the war machine spread once more into new forms of spectacle. War museums opened all over liberated France at the sites of various landings and battles, many of them in old forts or bunkers. The first rooms usually exhibited relics of the last military-industrial conflict (outdated equipment, old uniforms and medals, yellowing photographs), while others had collections of military documents or screenings of period newsreels. It was not long, however, before the invariably large number of visitors were shown into huge, windowless rooms resembling a planetarium or a flight (or driving) simulator. In these war simulators, the public was supposed to feel like spectators-survivors of the recent battlefield.

If one thinks of the cinema-mausoleums or atmospheric cinemas of the thirties, one can see in this a new outflanking of immediate reality by the cinematic paramnesia of the war machine.

The sites chosen for museums of the Second World War remind us that these fortress-tombs, dungeons and bunkers are first and foremost camerae obscurae, that their hollowed windows, narrow apertures and loopholes are designed to light up the outside while leaving the inside in semi-darkness.”

(pg 48-49)

Art often appeals to the emotions of the viewer but there is always a risk when mixing reality (such as the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) with fantasy.

On the other hand, aren’t all museums places of fantasy to some degree? They’re constructed environments, representations of the past or emissaries from an idealized present/future. The difficulty is creating some kind of truth through the narratives told and the objects/experiences used to tell them, the transformation of a kind of fiction into reality. But according to Virilio, it goes both ways; if I found myself in an actual war zone, I’d likely feel that I was in a movie. Fictionalizing reality through simulation can provide access to events but does it also train us to experience the world as no more than representation?

Smithsonian’s Video Game Exhibition


Children + Chessmen at NY Museum

Via Ramin Talaie for The Wall Street Journal

I spotted this gem in The Wall Street Journal’s New York Photos of the Week March 10th–March 16th with the caption:

About 30 public elementary school children compete in a chess tournament sponsored by Chess-in-the-Schools at The Cloisters Museum in New York on Sunday, March 11, 2012. The museum is currently displaying an exhibition “The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis.”

I hadn’t heard about the chess exhibition at The Cloisters but as a former high school chess geek, I know that the medieval Lewis Chessmen are some of the most famous historical game pieces (not to mention that Ron and Harry used them to play Wizard’s Chess in the first Harry Potter movie).

The pieces are thought to have been made in Norway and were probably abandoned on the Aisle of Lewis (which is near the west coast of Scotland) by a 12th century merchant. The pieces were lost until 1831 when they were unearthed with a whole trove of other objects. From the Met’s website:

The chess pieces (thereafter known as the Lewis Chessmen), which come from at least four distinct but incomplete sets, are today arguably the most famous chess pieces in the world, and are among the icons of the collections of the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

The King below is obviously aghast that I haven’t visited him already.

(image via the Met’s website)

Met to Re-Open Galleries of American Paintings

image courtesy of the NYT

Mark your calendars!!

The Met’s four-year $100 million dollar renovation of their American Wing is about to reach completion. Many of those glorious paintings mounted on dreary pegboard in visible storage have been reinstalled in the new gallery, opening on January 16th.

Carol Vogel in the NYT reports:

Everything is now on one floor, and Mr. Heckscher [chairman of the American Wing], his curatorial team and the New York architects Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates gutted and reconfigured the space, adding 3,300 square feet and creating 26 galleries dedicated primarily to paintings and sculpture. The design is modern but not sterile, with either cove or vaulted ceilings and some skylighted spaces. Inspired by 19th-century Beaux-Arts proportions, the walls have simplified Classical cornices and dados, creating a sense of the grand, domestic proportions that were the original backdrop for many of these canvases decades ago.

The new galleries are organized both chronologically and thematically in a way that, as Mr. Heckscher explained it, “tells the story of American art and in the process American history.”

Can hardly wait to visit the Sargents in their new home!

If you’re interested in The Met’s many renovations, you should take the time to visit the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition on the work of architect Kevin Roche (through Feb 5). He is not only a Pritzer Prize winner, but one of my personal favorites. Roche’s Ford Foundation Building is in my top 5 list of 20th century buildings.

But Roche is also responsible for three decades of expansion and renovation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. KRJD designed every expansion from the glass-fronted court for the Temple of Dendur to the controversial Robert Lehman wing. The MCNY exhibition has some fascinating diagrams of The Met’s various expansions and even if you think it’s become an unwieldy franken-seum (that’s a portmanteau of Frankestein and museum) seeing the building’s development is worth a visit.


Smithsonian develops new method to date silk

Image via the China National Silk Museum

Break out the kimono!

For decades, the art of silk dating was the stuff of old fashioned detective work. But now, scientists at the Smithsonian Museum’s Conservation Institute have created a sure-fire technique based on the natural deterioration of the fabric’s amino acids. And it only takes 20 minutes to perform!

From Smithsonian Science:

“Many things an animal makes are protein based, such as skin and hair. Proteins are made of amino acids,” explains Smithsonian research scientist Mehdi Moini, chief author of a recent paper in the journal Analytical Chemistry announcing the new dating method. “Living creatures build protein by using specific amino acids known commonly as left-handed [L] amino acids. Once an animal dies it can no longer replace the tissues containing left-handed amino acids and the clock starts. As L- changes to D-amino acids [right handed], the protein begins to degrade,” Moini explains. Measuring this ever-changing ratio between left-handed and right-handed (D) amino acids can be used as a scientific clock by which a silk’s age can be estimated. In controlled environments such as museum storage, the decomposition process of silk is relatively uniform, rendering D/L measurement more reliable.

The article “Dating Silk by Capillary Electrophoresis Mass Spectrometry,” appared in the scientific journal Analytical Chemistry, and was authored by Mehdi Moini; Mary Ballard, Smithsonian senior textile conservator; and Museum Conservation Institute intern Kathryn Klauenberg.

Rebels leave artifacts, destroy Qaddafi’s Cars

"Libyan rebels liberate Gaddafi’s custom Fiat 500" image via Jalopnik

In times of revolt, museum collections are sometimes looted or irreparably damaged. Thankfully, artifacts at the Jamahiriya Museum in Libya have remained unscathed…. almost. In late August, rebels searching for a secret tunnel to Quaddafi’s residence broke into the museum which is the home of an ancient art collection. oh yeah. AND a few of Quaddafi’s cars.

From the New York Observer:

The rebels proceeded to smash the automobiles, which included a Volkswagen Beetle and a Jeep that the leader used in the 1960s as he was coming to power.

“It was a revolution – you can’t resist. It was better to let the rebels in than have them enter by force,” Mustafa Turjman, the head of research for Libya’s department of archaeology, told the paper. “When they saw the objects belonging to Gaddafi they couldn’t resist.”

One might think that if any works called for deaccessioning, they would be a former dictator’s modern cars in a museum devoted to ancient archaeology. But…

Museum officials said that they will eventually restore the cars. Said Mohamed Shakshuki, the acting president of the department of archaeology, “Staff never wanted to display the cars but we could not refuse… We don’t consider them part of the classical collection. In the future, however, we will expose them to the public because they are part of our history.”

Metropolitan Museum 9/11 Concert Bungle

There were a number of 9/11-related cultural events taking place in the city this weekend but I decided to go to The Met for a lecture by artist Faith Ringold and to hear a concert by the Wordless Music Orchestra at the Temple of Dendur.

Ringold is one of my childhood heros: I saw her Tar Beach quilt at a young age, frequently read her children’s book of the same name, and an enormous poster of the quilt (signed by Ringold for my mother) has hung in my parent’s house since I can remember. So seeing Ringold in the flesh and  hearing her talk about the 9/11 Peace Story Quilts she created with New York school children was something of a dream come true.

Tar Beach by Faith RIngold

The talk was fine. But Ringlod turned out to be human rather than the all-knowing creative visionary I had imagined since youth. I struggled with my reaction to some of the works she created after the 9/11 attacks and their sense of anger. The flags didn’t square with my mental image of the flying girl.

What I really wanted on Sunday was some kind of catharsis– a moment when my experience of art would lift me beyond feelings of injustice and mourning. So as we exited the auditorium and I headed over to the Temple of Dendur, my hopes were resting on the Wordless Music Orchestra. I envisioned sitting on a stone paver in front of the marred temple and meditating on life and loss and memory while stringed instruments intoned a lamentation.

But the path to the temple room from the theater was roped off and gallery guards were turning people away. They told me to try the entrance from the American Wing. So I walked briskly back through the lobby and European Decorative Arts, though Arms and Armor to the Western entrance to the temple room where I was told that they couldn’t let me in because they were waiting to let people in from a lecture that had just ended. I said “I was at that lecture” so the guard told me to go back to the other entrance. So I walked back through Armor, Decorative Arts, and the lobby to the Egyptian wing where a huge crowd had formed, annoyed that they couldn’t get into the concert. I squeezed my way up to a guard and said that I had been at the lecture and understood that lecture attendees were being let into the concert. He looked like he didn’t believe me but at least made a show of walking over to someone else to ask about it.

By this time, an obviously senior member of the museum staff was shouting that the concert was full and telling people to go away. I have never seen museum visitors so upset. There was yelling. Swearing. Name calling. It wasn’t really the type of atmosphere I was looking for but I hung around a bit just to watch the drama unfold– mostly just hot tempers and bitter disappointment. Hundreds of people were turned away.

Listening from the hall

I made my way again to the American Wing and stood for a while in a crowd of people outside the West entrance to the temple room, trying to listen to the concert from the hall. Eventually, I walked back to the Engelhard Court for an overpriced cup of museum coffee and an attempt to watch the concert’s livestream on my iPhone. Gave up after 15 minutes.

Museum transcendence on 9/11: fail.

But such is life, right?

The Met might want to look into having an overflow space for such events– perhaps playing the concert’s livestream in their auditorium or setting up speakers in the Engelhard Court. I’m sure that the hundreds of museum goers turned away from the concert would have appreciated such an opportunity.

And now I can listen to the concert online from the comfort of my blog cave. Belated but still beautiful.

Gothamist Gets Whale to Tweet

Photo courtesy of AMNH\R. Mickens via Gothamist

The blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History is known not only for her ability to awe visitors of all ages but also for her lively twitter feed, @NatHistoryWhale. So the Gothamist was naturally concerned when the Whale went into radio silence following the August 23rd tweet “It feels stranger than you’d think to be attached to a ceiling during an earthquake.”

They checked-in during a scheduled cleaning on September 7th:

The big blue whale that “lives” in the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life was given a wipe down today. The annual cleaning took place just after noon today, but the whale hasn’t Tweeted since… the earthquake! It’s understandable, she’s old—the whale was installed in 1969, when technology wasn’t so advanced.

The Whale replied:

This tweet’s for you @Gothamist ‘Cause we’re all in this together and we love to take a bath.



Thanks for the tip, Uncle Doug!

Playing with the V&A Museum

Ever fantasized about having carte blanche in a major museum? You know, putting a sweater vest on the Venus de milo or having a romp in that really red bed. Well, design aesthete Murray Moss, famous owner/curator of the gallery-like SoHo store moss, will be adding his own “interventions” to exhibits at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Moss teamed up with 3D printing firm Materialise to create “Industrial Revolution 2.0: How the Material World Will Newly Materialise,”  eight installations located throughout the V&A. Ostensibly a part of The London Design Festival Sept 17-25, Moss’ whimsical additions seem to have less to do with design and more to do with fulfilling the cheeky daydreams of a museum-goer. And it sounds glorious!

From the NYT:

What are some of the most surprising pieces in the show?

The bust of Lady Belhaven, from 1827. It’s really beautiful and it’s in a very important gallery, the Hintze Gallery, which is British sculpture from the 1700s through the 20th century. It’s like the heart, the don’t-you-dare-mess-with-me part of the museum. So, of course, I wanted in. Lady Belhaven looks almost like a Raphael. It’s a touching portrait of a woman who’s thinking, and I wanted to do something with it. I happened to meet Stephen Jones, who is a famous milliner. I thought maybe he could go back in a time machine to 1827 and design a hat for Lady Belhaven. Or she could come forward to 2011 and become a client. What would he do? What kind of hat would this woman wear?

But then the V & A said we couldn’t put it on her, because you can’t touch the statue. So we convinced them to let us send a scanning company. They had guards all around, and we digitized her. We captured her on a file and sent it to Stephen, who manipulated it and designed a hat on Lady Belhaven. Then we printed the whole thing and created a second Lady Belhaven bust, which we put next to the original.

I understand you’re also working with the Great Bed of Ware.

I love the Bed of Ware. The museum, through no action on its own, cleaned up the act of the bed — because it’s in the museum, it must be a noble bed. It’s this giant carved, circa 1590 to 1600 Elizabethan bed. But the truth of the bed is that it was commissioned by an inn in the town of Ware, in Hertfordshire, as an Elizabethan publicity stunt to advertise, I’m sure, something along the lines of “Have the best sex of your life in the biggest bed in England.” They spoke about it at the time. Writers wrote about it and said it could sleep 20 couples. Shakespeare included it in a very bawdy way in “Twelfth Night.” I thought, why don’t I put the sex back into the Bed of Ware, because that’s something I can do.

How do you do that?

You put 14 pairs of what look like Elizabethan prostitute shoes around the bed, to suggest that 14 occupants, plus a 15th — whoever rented the bed for the night — is sleeping in it.


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